Raiders OTAs: CB Jack Jones wants to take the defense to the next level, plus a rotation at QB

HENDERSON, Nev. – Jack Jones was all smiles as he stepped up to the lectern next to the Las Vegas Raiders practice fields on Wednesday. The 26-year-old cornerback has quickly become a fan favorite and was playing the best ball of his career towards the end of last season, so it was no surprise he was in good spirits. However, his smile grew stale when asked what he had to do to be recognized as one of the best corners in the NFL.

“I think I’m already a top-tier corner,” Jones said. “I’m not really worried about what you all say. I just go out there and play with the ball.”

Jones’ focus this year is on helping the Raiders defense take the next step. The unit finished ninth in the NFL in scoring defense last year, but with the return of defensive coordinator Patrick Graham, nine starters returning from 2023 and a key addition in defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, an improvement should be well within reach.

“My goal this year is to be the No. 1 defense and make the playoffs,” Jones said.

A crucial part of that effort will be getting more consistency out of the third-year cornerback. Jones, 26, has always played at a high level when he has been on the field. In his seven games with the Raiders last season, he quickly became the team’s No. 1 corner. He was consistent in coverage, provided running support and regularly made moves on the ball.

The problem for Jones was his ability to do that stay on the field. He suffered a season-ending knee injury as a rookie with the New England Patriots in 2022 and was subsequently suspended while on injured reserve after missing a rehab session. The following offseason, he was arrested at Boston’s Logan Airport when two loaded guns were found in his carry-on luggage.

Those charges were eventually dropped and he was a starter to start the 2023 season, but he suffered a hamstring injury in Week 1 and was placed on IR. He returned to play last October, but would soon miss curfew at the Patriots’ team hotel before their Week 9 game. He was then benched after week 10. Jones had no injuries or off-field issues when he signed with the Raiders in Week 11. The next step for him is to show that he can remain available and disciplined for a full period. season.

“The (Raiders coaches) know my intention is good,” Jones said. “As long as my intentions remain good, I don’t think we’ll have a problem.”

Coach Antonio Pierce and assistant head coach Marvin Lewis have a lot of experience with Jones. Pierce coached him from 2014 to 2015 at Long Beach Poly High and from 2019 to 2021 at Arizona State before they reunited with the Raiders last season. Lewis also overlapped with Jones at Arizona State. That familiarity has helped them keep him on track.

“We’re trying to smooth Jackie over a little bit,” Lewis said. “He is a very talented young man. He has a talent for making football matches. … He is still learning day in and day out to become a professional. … But his teammates know what to expect on the field. We just have to make sure that we always keep all these things positive.”

If Jones can pull that off, he has a chance to become a real impact player for the Raiders. That would raise the defense’s collective ceiling as the players work to make it an elite unit.

Here are some other notes from the Raiders’ fifth session of offseason team activities.

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White gets starter reps at RB

As expected, running back Zamir White has provided the most reps among the starters after Josh Jacobs signed with the Green Bay Packers this offseason. White was productive in four starts last year while Jacobs was injured, and that has helped him adjust to that full-time role. He isn’t setting any specific statistical benchmarks for himself this season, instead focusing on growing as a player in general.

“That built a lot of confidence heading into this year,” White said. “(I have to improve in) everything: catching, running the ball, making guys miss one-on-one and all that stuff. I want to get better at everything.”

As usual, the third-year running back headed back to his hometown of Laurinburg, N.C., this offseason for a training regimen that included lifting in the gym, running outside and training his growing stable of horses.

With no pads or contact during OTAs, White’s primary focus was on learning offensive coordinator Luke Getsy’s system and learning how to take on more of a leadership role with his teammates.

Raiders running back Zamir White ran for 397 yards and a touchdown during the final four games of last season (Stephen R. Sylvanie / USA Today)

Veteran running back Alexander Mattison has been a source of help. He will be the primary backup behind White as the Raiders shift to a more committee approach. He led the Minnesota Vikings last season, but he spent most of his first four seasons behind Dalvin Cook, so it’s a role he’s familiar with.

“He’s a guy who’s been in a similar position to what I was in with Dalvin in Minnesota,” Mattison said of White. “For him to step up and have a different kind of mentality, that’s something I’ve seen for him. As a group we can come together and … teach each other and lend each other a helping hand.”

Mattison is a solid runner, receiver and pass blocker, but his biggest asset so far is his familiarity with the offensive system. Mattison has never played for Getsy, but he has spent his entire career under offensive players with ties to the Mike Shanahan coaching tree, from which Getsy also comes.

The biggest shift for the Raiders’ running backs is a move from a gap-based blocking scheme to a zone-based scheme. Essentially, the running backs now aim to run to one part of the field rather than punch gaps between specific offensive linemen.

“It definitely helped to get comfortable with the system,” Mattison said. “That wide zone is pretty hard to stop as long as the O-line is running and the running backs are on our tracks and staying true to our targets. It’s one of those things that can terrorize a defense.”

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O’Connell, Minshew is running with the first team

The Raiders have continued to regularly rotate quarterbacks Aidan O’Connell and Gardner Minshew into the starting lineup. The coaching staff is still in the early stages of determining who the starter will be in 2024, with cycling likely continuing well into training camp.

“It’s competitive,” quarterbacks coach Rich Scarangello said. “They both have incredibly good personalities and they balance each other out well. They’re different in the way they approach it and they’re different in the way they play, but their mentality is similar. They bring out the best in each other. We throw a lot at it, and they handled it well.

Scarangello said he was impressed with the moxie, grit and competitive nature Minshew has displayed, calling him a “baller.”

However, the ideal situation for the Raiders would be for O’Connell to emerge as the starter. Why? He’s younger and has more long-term upside. Scarangello described O’Connell as “exceptionally accurate” and believes he can fit the mold of a “Kirk Cousins-type” quarterback in Getsy’s offense.

“The individual is everything you hoped he would be,” Scarangello said of O’Connell. “He just has a lot of internal drive, discipline, how he sees the game the right way. He wants to be great, he will work at it, he is unselfish and he has a lot of respect among his teammates, the coaching staff and everyone in the building.”

Sure, it would be great if the Raiders knew who their starting quarterback was, but they’re in no rush. They view the quarterback rotation as a positive.

“There’s plenty of reps,” Scarangello said. “Of course you would always like to have one man, but I don’t think that will stick. I think someone will show up. And it’s exciting. It’s a good problem to have.”

Raiders quarterbacks Aidan O’Connell (left) and Gardner Minshew are both criticized in the first-team offense. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Who was unavailable?

The Raiders had 12 players who did not participate in practice Wednesday: receivers Davante Adams, Michael Gallup, Jalen Guyton, Tulu Griffin and Jeff Foreman; guard Jackson Powers-Johnson; offensive tackle Kolton Miller; defensive tackles Nesta Jade Silvera, Matthew Butler and Marquan McCall; linebacker Darien Butler; and cornerback Cornell Armstrong. Miller participated in warmups but spent the rest of the practice with the training staff, which is typically a sign of a player suffering a minor injury.

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(Photo: Jay Biggerstaff/USA Today)

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